This nice report from PBS Chicago describes how researchers at Northwestern University are using mice to study post-traumatic stress disorder, and get at the basic mechanisms of fear. They already have positive results with experimental drugs that could eventually be used to treat people and prevent traumatic memories from taking over their lives — whether they are soldiers in combat or civilians caught up in a natural disaster.
Jelena Radulovic and colleagues at Northwestern’s ‘fear lab’ stress mice by first immobilizing them for an hour, then giving them a mild electrical shock. They can see changes in their behavior — fearful mice ‘freeze’ and don’t explore their surroundings.
They can look at chemical changes in the brains of these mice to see what happens as these stressful memories are made.
And now they have been able to test two new anti-anxiety drugs, finding that they can prevent this “mouse PTSD.” Because these drugs are related to one already approved for human use, human clinical trials could come relatively soon, according to the report.
Is it ethical to upset mice with the aim of producing drugs that could bring such benefits? Radulovic certainly thinks so, and I would agree. She says: “We are considering ethical problems all the time in the lab, and we are designing the experiments so that there is a minimal possible distress incurred to the animals in order to model human disorder.”
I’d add that her study would have had to clear Northwestern’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and assuming it was funded by the National Institutes of Health would also have had to pass ethics review there.